- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009


Tiananmen Square is the symbolic heart of Beijing, but 20 years ago today, it bled real blood.

We may never know how many Chinese died when the tanks and hard-faced soldiers poured into the square - estimates range from 184 to 2,600 - but we will never forget why they died.

Those Chinese patriots died to banish two cruel ideas from the face of the Earth. The first is that the desire for freedom is not universal, that individual rights are a Western creation forced on a different culture that has its own values. We have always been puzzled when so-called liberals tell us freedom is some kind of foreign colonization when we know it grows naturally in every soil. Those brave students and workers who met for weeks on the square and built what they called the “Goddess of Liberty” or “Goddess of Democracy” - in form and meaning akin to our Statue of Liberty - were signaling that their aspirations were like ours. They too wanted the freedom to speak, believe, petition, buy, sell, make and move. They didn’t want to flee to America, although many later did; they wanted to bring America to China.

The other notion that died on June 3 and 4, 1989, was that the Chinese Communists rule by the consent of the governed. It had become fashionable to presume that the late 1970s economic reforms that had lifted China out of the abject misery of communist-imposed poverty had satisfied the restive population. A bit of rice in the bowl, and collectivism was popular again. It wasn’t true. The ordinary Chinese had never surrendered his spiritual side, his longing for autonomy.

By May 13, 1989, thousands began to gather in the square. Some went on hunger strikes, demanding faster reforms. The crowds grew, and the regime creaked. Even after Zhao Ziyang made a tearful appeal, begging the students to leave on May 19, the majority stayed. Martial law was declared the next day, but many still stayed. They were peaceful and powerful. The government waited more than two weeks, for the first time unsure of its next move. When the tanks came, the fiction of communism’s appeal was the only thing permanently crushed.

The events of 1989 should give caution to those who think history has an inevitable direction, like Georg Wilhelm Hegel, Karl Marx and Francis Fukuyama. Yes, in that year, democracy came to many lands. But the peaceful democratic movements in China and Burma failed tragically. History actually turns on the actions and inactions of ordinary people. Some become heroes and others monsters.

Today we remember the heroes of Tiananmen Square. Some died, and too many are still imprisoned. But the quiet bravery of these unarmed Chinese patriots still shames the regime that had no answer for their calls for justice other than the roar of rifle fire and the grind of tank treads.

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